Watch CBS News

Atlanta spa shooting defendant pleads not guilty in death penalty case

Asian American thought leaders on spa shootings
Asian American thought leaders on spa shootings 08:59

A man already sentenced to life in prison after pleading guilty to fatally shooting four people at a spa outside Atlanta pleaded not guilty to shooting four others on the same day at two spas inside the city. Six of the victims were Asian women.

Those killed outside Atlanta in Cherokee County were: Paul Michels, 54; Xiaojie "Emily" Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Delaina Yaun, 33. The Atlanta victims were: Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63.

In Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, District Attorney Fani Willis is seeking the death penalty as well as a sentencing enhancement under Georgia's new hate crimes law.

On Tuesday, Robert Aaron Long, 22, appeared briefly in Fulton County Superior Court, where he waived arraignment and entered a not guilty plea on charges including murder, aggravated assault and domestic terrorism.

Robert Aaron Long
Robert Aaron Long Crisp County Sheriff's Office

In July, the defendant pleaded guilty in Cherokee County to charges including four counts of murder. He received four sentences of life without parole plus an additional 35 years.

Tuesday was the second time the defendant appeared before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Ural Glanville. The hearing lasted a few minutes. Glanville asked the defense if they wanted to waive indictment and plead not guilty, and defense attorney Jerilyn Bell said yes. The defendant did not address the judge. Glanville set the next hearing in the case for November 23.

During a brief appearance last month, Glanville asked defense attorneys — court-appointed lawyers from the Georgia capital defender's office — about their qualifications to handle a death penalty case and went through a checklist specific to capital cases.

When the killings happened in March, Asian Americans were already experiencing an uptick in hostility related to the coronavirus pandemic. The fact that a majority of the spa victims were women of Asian descent exacerbated existing feelings of fear and anger. Many have been upset by the White defendant's assertions that he was motivated by the shame he felt from sexual urges, rather than by racial bias.

Cherokee County District Attorney Shannon Wallace said during the hearing in July that investigators found no evidence of racial bias motivating the killings. She said that had that case gone to trial, she was prepared to seek the death penalty and would have argued the defendant was motivated by gender bias.

Wallace said she spoke to the Cherokee County survivors and families of victims before agreeing to a plea deal and made that decision in the interest of getting justice quickly and avoiding a drawn-out trial and appeals process.

Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, said last month that she believes race and gender played a role in the defendant's motivation. Georgia's hate crimes law does not provide for a stand-alone hate crime. After a person is convicted of an underlying crime, a jury must determine whether it was motivated by bias, which carries an additional penalty.

Willis has said the families of the Atlanta victims have told her they understand it may be a long road but they're in favor of seeking the death penalty. BJay Pak, a lawyer who represents the families of Yue and Kim, said they believe a lengthy judicial process is a small price to pay to get justice for their loved ones.

"They're ready and they have the resolve to do it," Pak said. He noted that the family members try to come to court for the hearings to seek closure and justice and to remind the judge and others involved of what's been lost.

After shooting five people at Youngs Asian Massage in Cherokee County, the defendant drove about 30 miles south to Atlanta, where he shot three women at Gold Spa and one woman across the street at Aromatherapy Spa, police have said.

He then headed south on the interstate, and authorities have said he intended to carry out similar attacks in Florida.

But his parents had called police after recognizing their son in images from security video posted online by authorities in Cherokee County. His parents were already tracking his movements through an application on his phone, which allowed authorities to find him and take him into custody on a south Georgia interstate.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.